Popular interpretations of America’s troubled racial history have become mainstream over the past several years, both in entertainment media and in several unnerving current events. The two most recent obvious examples of racial history's presence in popular media—due to their critical and commercial success—might be the 2013 Academy Award-winning film “12 Years a Slave” and this year’s Oscar nominee, “Selma.”
Each depicts a separate piece of African-American history—the former: plantation life in the antebellum slaveholding South; the latter: the civil rights marches in that same South throughout the 1960s, which by then was keeping black Americans enslaved through Jim Crow laws.
The films are roughly a century apart—in terms of their content—though like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (the subject of “Selma”) attempted to do in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech of August 1963, they may be bridged together to form a more fluid depiction of the continuity of history.
“This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice,” King continued. “It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.”
“But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free,” he woefully declared with the subtle shaking of his head.
Though Lincoln felt a personal moral obligation to free the slaves—“I never, in my life, felt more certain that I was doing right, than I do in signing this paper,” he said while validating the Emancipation Proclamation—he realized that, in a legal sense, the purpose of the measure would be null and void at the conclusion of the Civil War, regardless of whether the Union forces were unequivocally and unconditionally victorious on the battlefield.
This notion—grounded in Lincoln’s unwavering dedication to ensuring the lawfulness of his actions—made a constitutional amendment not only proper, but legally necessary. It was also an example of Lincoln’s willingness to change his views on moral and political topics; he had stood idly by in 1861, while an “unamenable” proposed amendment vowed to ban all possible future amendments to the Constitution “which will authorize or give Congress the power to abolish or interfere…with…domestic institutions” of individual states, “including that of persons held to labor or service,” according to historian John Stauffer.
This “first” Thirteenth Amendment failed to pass, and according to Stauffer, it “was the exact opposite of the…one” that would eventually be passed in 1865. Lincoln said he had “no objection to” the first try at the amendment, which Stauffer claims “was intellectually and morally dishonest” on Lincoln’s behalf. As a young man, Lincoln had seen the horrors of slavery firsthand, and in his earliest of days as a politician declared, “I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I can not remember when I did not think so, and feel.”
In his Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln said that from the time the first shots of the war were fired in 1861 “slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war.”
“To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war,” he said, as a result of which, said Lincoln, Northern forces had an obligation to strike down the slaveholding powers of the South.
All of this made a constitutional provision absolutely necessary to ensure that all formerly enslaved persons could be “then, thenceforward, and forever free”—as the Emancipation Proclamation promised. As the war-clouds which loomed over America began to dissipate as the spring of 1865 approached, Lincoln and his emancipationist-minded colleagues realized that their grandest opportunity to strike a permanent fatal blow to slavery was at hand. Confederate forces throughout the South were short on supplies and men, to say the least, and documents containing terms of peace and surrender began to cover the desks of Rebel officials, in the same places where Articles of Secession and battle maps could be found just months prior.
Beginning soon after the text of the proposed Thirteenth Amendment passed the U.S. Senate in the spring of 1864, weeks of political maneuvering turned to months of shady backroom bartering. After his successful bid at reelection, Lincoln began to “vehemently advocate” for the amendment, according to historian David Blight. He wrote to congressmen, pleading for their support, while members of his cabinet, legislators and other individuals invested in the bill’s outcome called upon and visited dozens of colleagues in hopes of changing their minds, strengthening their abolition-leaning sentiments and securing support for the amendment’s passage.
Lincoln predicted that the amendment, if passed, would “bring the war…rapidly to a close,” and stated his unquestioned support for the movement by boisterously asserting, “The abolition of slavery by constitutional provision settles the fate, for all coming time, not only of the millions now in bondage, but of unborn millions to come.”
“I leave it to you to determine how it shall be done,” Lincoln said before intimidatingly adding, “but remember that I am President of the United States, clothed with immense power, and I expect you to procure these votes.”
Longtime Pennsylvania congressman and abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, when reflecting upon the amendment's eventual success, affectionately credited Lincoln's tactics and paid homage to his typically upstanding moral character. "The greatest measure of the nineteenth century," said Stevens, "was passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America."
According to Ohioan James Ashley—whose support of the amendment's morality incited in him "so strong a desire to give utterance to the thoughts and emotions which throbbed my heart and brain"—on the day of the House vote "Every available foot of space, both in the galleries and on the floor of the House, was crowded at an early hour, and many hundreds could not get within hearing" distance. It was an event that Ashley felt signaled "the complete triumph of a cause" he had not anticipated living "long enough to see."
Alexander Coffroth, another Pennsylvanian, remarked that even if his support of the amendment and personal opposition to slavery "dig my political grave...I will descend into it without a murmur” (Coffroth, a Democrat, had initially stood in opposition to the amendment for political, not moral, reasons; after losing his reelection bid in the fall of 1864, however, he decided to cast his vote in favor of the amendment as an outgoing, lame-duck legislator).
As the roll call transpired in the halls of Congress, the ayes and noes ticked off one by one. Anticipation filled the chamber. Journalist Noah Brooks—who Lincoln was considering naming a personal secretary—said that as the votes were counted, the room fell into "a pause of utter silence." Edward McPherson, the House clerk, tallied the final count—119 ayes versus 56 noes.
The majority had achieved a two-thirds status; the amendment passed.
As Speaker of the House Schuyler Colfax read the culminating figures, “the voices of the dense mass of spectators were choked by strong emotion,” wrote Brooks. “Then there was an explosion, a storm of cheers, the like of which probably no Congress of the United States ever heard before.” Congressman Isaac Arnold recalled hearing “the roar of artillery from Capitol Hill” which “announced to the people of Washington that the amendment had passed.”
“Congressmen…started yelling, crying, hugging each other, dancing on the tops of their desks,” according to David Blight. “God knows why, in part because of the importance, the gravity of the issue, and in part perhaps because they'd lived through so much agony in the war; they truly had something to celebrate.”
“Father, you should’ve been here today,” wrote Lewis Douglass, an African-American private in the 54th Massachusetts and son of the renowned abolitionist and ex-slave Frederick Douglass. “Today was your day.”
Despite the amendment’s passage through the House that January day, there was still work to be done, however—a truth that Lincoln knew when he reminded the nation that “The occasion was one of congratulation to the country and to the whole world. But there is a task yet before us—to go forward and consummate by the votes of the States that which Congress so nobly began.”
Three-fourths of the American states had to uphold the amendment for it to pass, and to its proponents’ satisfaction, “legislatures in twenty states acted almost immediately,” according to presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin.
And despite his death prior to seeing the amendment as part of the Constitution, the amendment’s advocates—even Lincoln’s former rivals and critics—credited the slain president for its success.
“And to whom is the country more immediately indebted for this vital and saving amendment of the Constitution than perhaps, to any other man?” asked abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. “I believe I may confidently answer—to the humble railsplitter of Illinois—to the Presidential chain-breaker for millions of the oppressed—to President Lincoln!”
The amendment, along with its closely related successors, the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments, secured freedom to the American slave by affirming—in a rather simple manner, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” Additionally, its authors complimented the main text with a second section: “Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”
It was finally decided “then, thenceforward, and forever” that all persons within the United States would be eternally free from human bondage.